Today’s topic is language fluency, and how people learn language. Linguists use the verb acquire instead of learn because it better describes the way babies speak their first language: largely without any active or conscious effort, which is very different from the way an adult studies a language. Many of these facts about language may seem familiar to those of you with children or who speak—or used to speak—more than one language. As we describe language acquisition, remember that this process applies to any human language: There is a universal process in language acquisition, no matter how different languages sound on the surface.
What Is the Difference Between Language Acquisition in Childhood and in Adulthood?
Although most of us know how challenging it can be to learn a second language in high school, most people don’t realize how remarkable that makes the speed and effortlessness with which children acquire their first language. It is also a common misconception that children are “taught” how to speak. Most scholars agree that even imitation plays only a limited role, while the baby’s brain, which comes equipped with specialized areas like Wernicke’s and Broca’s, plays a large role.
It is also surprising to learn that parents actually correct children very little, and even when they do, it has little effect. Studies show that while parents may correct children when they say inaccurate things, like calling someone by the wrong name, they seldom correct children when they make grammatical errors (like “I eated that” or “I have two foots”). Many of us find these temporary mistakes too cute to correct, and further, many parents who try to correct grammar in young children notice that their children seem impervious to the corrections, and continue to make the minor error until they are ready to produce the correct term themselves.
When psycholinguists say “corrections,” by the way, they aren’t referring to correcting stylistic rules like “never end a sentence with a preposition”; they are referring to the remarkable unconscious rules that all native speakers of every language produce with no effort. Either way, one thing is for sure: Children who are never corrected reach language fluency at the same time as the children of parents who try to correct them.